On Saturday, Beyoncé fulfilled her duties as the long-awaited Coachella headliner, and it’s safe to the say that the annual music and arts festival will never be the same. Fans have already signed off on the event being renamed Beychella, and her performance over the course of two weekends in the desert of Indio, California, confirmed that she is indeed the greatest living performer. However, her set — which she repeated for both weekends of Coachella, making only colour costume changes — has also been praised for thrusting facets of Black culture into the forefront. It’s the same applause that Beyoncé received in the aftermath her last album, Lemonade. Perhaps coincidentally, Coachella concluded on the eve of Lemonade’s two-year anniversary, highlighting Queen Bey’s continued insistence on prioritising the Black experience in her art and work. Beyoncé’s connection to her own identity isn’t new at all, but it sure does feel good.
Lemonade stands as the album that lifted the lid on Beyoncé’s notoriously private life and marriage to rapper and business mogul Jay-Z. Many of the songs on the album addressed the complex range of emotions the singer encountered after learning of her husband’s infidelity. In the months that followed, Jay himself would go on to confirm these allegations in interviews and with his own album, 4:44. But another strong undercurrent of Lemonade was its articulation of Black women’s experiences, especially given the fact that it was initially released as a musical film on HBO before the individual audio tracks were released.
Beyoncé narrated the experience with the words of Black feminist poet Warsan Shire. Symbolic references to the Black orisha, Oshun, pedestaled Black femininity, while the mothers of slain Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin held space for the pain that too many Black women have to endure in the face of violence against them and loved ones. Winnie Harlow, Chloe x Halle, Zendaya, and Serena Williams were just a few of the Black women in pop culture to appear in Beyoncé’s visual masterpiece. Even some of the cinematic and costume elements could be traced back to Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film in the US to be directed by a Black woman. Even the popularised “Becky with the good hair” was an acknowledgement of the battle Black women have waged against European beauty standards that seek to exclude us at every turn.
Though the public’s first dose of Bey’s “militant” Blackness came in the form of Lemonade’s first single “Formation” — a song that honours both her and her husband's physical Black features and the Southern Black culture from whence she came — it is a trend that has continued ever since. Her 2017 Grammy performance (which she executed while pregnant with twins, NBD) offered up a nod to African spirituality. She had an African-themed push party. She dressed as rapper Lil' Kim for Halloween and presented Colin Kaepernick with the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in awe of his activism on behalf of people of colour. She even delivered the best verse on the trap bop of the summer, DJ Khaled’s “Top Off.”
And then there was Coachella. As the first Black woman to ever headline what has become the most popular music festival in the country, Beyoncé included artistic elements that were only identifiable to people familiar with the Black experience. She sang James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. She paid homage to Malcolm X and Nina Simone. Instead of settling for a regular band and dancers, she assembled a Black marching band, complete with majorettes and a drumline. Their style of music and movement is one that is native to Black communities and institutionalised at HBCUs (historically Black Colleges and Universities). She fashioned some of her dancers as pledges in a Black fraternity, and all of her co-performers “Swag Surfed” in unison. Following both performances, she announced scholarships through her BeyGood foundation for students attending certain HBCUs. There should be no question as to where Bey’s loyalties lie.
Beyoncé’s Blackness should come as a surprise to no one, despite this hilarious Saturday Night Live! skit suggesting otherwise. She made major imprints on the fabric of Black music, entrepreneurship, and culture even before Lemonade. She and Jay-Z have been contributing to causes like Black Lives Matter for years. Then there’s the fact that she herself is… Black. Despite Bey’s ability to appeal to the masses, her actual heritage and background have always been there: showing up in her speaking accent, her choice of hairstyles, and her musical tastes, just to name a few things.
This latest version of Beyoncé's artistry has undeniable Blackness at the top of its list, and it's coming at a time when we need it the most. While the rest of the entertainment industry, notably film and television, seem to be embracing a colourblind form of equality that still prioritises whiteness by making itself easily digestible and ambiguous, Beyoncé's Blackness feels bold; bolder than it actually is. The white gaze — the gaze that too often dictates what is mainstream and what is not — demands an apology from Blackness, making it easy to categorise Bey's musical expression over the past two years as "unapologetic." But when the biggest pop star and greatest entertainer in the world brings attention to the culture and people that have been ignored or asked to change, it is a moment of reckoning; an opportunity to shift the way we think about Blackness and which directions such "apologies" need to be moving.